Recruitment & Retention

Schools Caught in Draft Of War Buildup

By Michelle R. Davis — March 12, 2003 9 min read
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A year ago, Albert “Bud” Dean finally achieved his longtime goal of becoming a principal, and stepped up to lead Bossier High School in Bossier City, La.

But in January, after Mr. Dean, 55, had settled comfortably into his role at the school, the U.S. Army reservist of 33 years’ standing was called to active duty in preparation for a possible war with Iraq. The Bossier High Bearkats were left without a chief.

“It was bittersweet,” the lieutenant colonel said from Fort Polk, La., where he serves as executive officer to the garrison commander. “The bitter part is you finally find a job that you worked your whole life to get. The other part is that I made a commitment to serve my country, and when you’re called, you go.”

As the United States builds up its military forces for action in the Persian Gulf region, schools are facing a long list of collateral issues—some of them personal and highly emotional, others the nuts-and-bolts concerns of maintaining normal operations.

School buildings are suddenly missing reservist teachers; students from military families are missing parents who have been deployed. Long-awaited field trips have been scrapped because of security concerns. And student protestors, sprouting in numbers not seen since the Vietnam War, are urging motorists to “Honk for Peace” in demonstrations outside their schools.

Some schools, like the 69 stateside schools run by the U.S. Department of Defense and others located near military bases, are adept at dealing with the issues a military buildup raises.

At Bossier High School, for example, where over half the students have a military connection and Barksdale Air Force Base and its 2nd Bomb Wing planes are less than five miles away, Mr. Dean said he found support from the students and staff.

To take his place, the Bossier Parish school system tapped retired principal Wayne L. Earp, the former leader of a middle school that feeds the 739-student Bossier High. Mr. Earp said it helped many students to see a familiar face from their middle school years at the helm of the high school.

“I don’t want to make any abrupt changes,” Mr. Earp said. “I’m here to hold on for [Mr. Dean] until he gets back.”

Not all school districts are as accommodating, said Col. Alan Smith of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Mr. Smith, a 5th grade history and math teacher at Little Egg Harbor Intermediate School in Little Egg Harbor, N.J., also serves as the national director of ombudsman services for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which helps educate employers on how to support volunteer military personnel.

He has been on leave from his teaching job since February of last year, aiding the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Federal law requires that members of the Reserves or the National Guard, when they return from active service, retain the seniority and status of their civilian positions and their salaries, Colonel Smith said. Some states also have laws that provide enhanced benefits.

But reservists or Guard members who are volunteer or are mobilized do not necessarily receive precisely the same jobs when they return, Colonel Smith said.

Some districts are particularly supportive, making up the difference between a teacher’s paycheck, for example, and the sometimes less generous one provided by the Reserves or National Guard. In the case of Colonel Smith, a new teacher was hired to temporarily take over his position in the classroom, and the school district is making payments into Mr. Smith’s pension fund that he would otherwise make.

But not all districts understand the law, Colonel Smith said. “It’s sad to say that there are many systems that are not Guard- and Reserve-friendly,” he said. “It causes a lot of angst for everyone.”

Some districts have told reservists to find their own substitute teachers, which is illegal, Colonel Smith said. Others say they can’t guarantee reservists’ positions upon return. “That’s a bunch of baloney,” he said.

‘It’s Personal’

Schools must deal with the legal and logistical issues the military buildup presents. But they must also tackle the emotional needs of a wide range of students and their parents.

Some 800,000 school-age U.S. children have active-duty military connections, and 35,000 of them have both a mother and father in uniform, said Mary M. Keller, the executive director of the Military Child Education Coalition, based in Harker Heights, Texas. More than 600,000 such students are in public schools, and 100,000 are in DOD schools, she said.

During a military deployment, one parent or both parents of a student may be assigned to jobs that take them overseas or away from their home bases. Students left with no parents at home may move in with friends or relatives to remain in the same school, Ms. Keller said. Others may have to move and switch schools. Both of those scenarios pose challenges for students and schools, Ms. Keller said.

The prospect of a war with Iraq “isn’t something that’s theoretical for these kids,” she added. “It’s painful and it’s personal.”

Schools may see a drop in grades, new behavioral problems, and unexpected emotional outbursts from students, said school psychologist Michael Priser, who has spent 11 years working in DOD schools and is now based at Argonner Elementary School in Hanau, Germany. He counseled students during the Gulf War in 1991, setting up support groups and ways to ease fears.

“One of the most critical things is to support the spouse left behind,” he said. “The schools tend to be a safe place for them, too.” Schools can use classroom activities to help students through a difficult time, said Frank Baker, the superintendent of Sumter School District 2 in Sumter, S.C. The 10,000-student district educates most of the students whose families live on-site at nearby Shaw Air Force Base.

Mr. Baker said teachers are encouraged to assign classroom activities that involve writing letters to deployed parents, or social studies lessons designed around a foreign country’s history or geography. Many students in the Sumter district are asked to keep journals to express their feelings or chronicle day-to-day activities for absent parents.

Additional support is particularly important for younger children, experts say. At High Hills Elementary School in Sumter District 2, support groups for students with parents who have been deployed are now in place, said Principal Wanda L. Andrews. In addition, the school has a strong welcoming committee that helps students who move into the community while living with a guardian.

Ms. Andrews also has creative ways of keeping deployed parents in touch with their children. When parents travel with the military, the school asks them to send postcards that include basic descriptions of the landscape, weather, and food of the areas they’re visiting— whatever can be shared that won’t upset children or make military secrets the topic of cafeteria chatter.

When a card arrives, it is read to the entire school over the public-address system, Ms. Andrews said. Then the exotic communiqué is posted on a large map in the school for all to see.

Thirteen- year-old Zach Latimore of Elmore, Ala., said he has “mixed emotions” about the deployment Feb. 27 of his mother, Army Reserve Specialist Pamela Jackson- Tucker. The 7th grader, naturally, is worried. “At first I was like, ‘I hope she comes back,’” he said. “Then I said, ‘I know she’s going to come back.’”

Ms. Jackson-Tucker, whose call-up will last at least a year and who works as a personnel specialist in the Reserves, said she would go first to a mobilization station in Georgia. After that, who knows? And she added that, if she did know, she might not be able to tell even her family.

Zach said he’ll be staying away from media reports about the looming war in Iraq. “I try not to watch the news a lot because it gets me all stressed out,” he said.

But Zach said he’s proud of his mother, an English teacher at Dallas County High School in Plantersville, Ala., who joined the Reserves in 1999. “Not everybody has the guts to be in the military,” he said.

A Fine Line

But some other schools, those whose enrollments may not include many military families, are still feeling their way when it comes to talking about the military buildup. In some places, the result has been clashes in classrooms and between students—some protesting the prospect of war, and others finding their families caught up in it.

In Maine, for example, some children of families with National Guard members or reservists who have been deployed complained to family-assistance centers about comments made at their schools, said Maj. Peter Rogers, a spokesman for the Maine Army National Guard.

So far, 16 separate incidents have been reported, he said, including one in which a teacher reportedly told students that a war with Iraq would be “unethical and immoral, and that anyone fighting such a war was also unethical and immoral,” he said.

“A child is already suffering the trauma of someone close to them having to go away,” Major Peters said. “This is rough on kids.”

In response, Maine Commissioner of Education J. Duke Albanese issued a Feb. 25 memo to principals and superintendents warning teachers to be careful about comments they make on the subject of Iraq. He said in the memo that discussions should allow for differences of opinion, but must be “grounded in civil discourse and mutual respect.”

So schools must walk a fine line between educating students about current events, allowing them to express anti- war views, and respecting others who may have differing opinions. For Ben Waxman, a senior at Springfield Township High School in Pennsylvania, anti-war protests aren’t necessarily anti-military. Mr. Waxman helped organize the Philadelphia-area piece of a nationwide protest March 5 in which students were encouraged to leave school to highlight their concerns about military action. (“Students Join National Anti-War Walkout,” this issue.)

Mr. Waxman said he has friends who have joined the Reserves but nonetheless support his actions. “They joined the military to pay for college, not to fight for global domination,” he said. “I want to protect my friends.”

For students whose futures could include being sent to fight a war in Iraq if it became protracted, current events strike even closer to home. Cheerleader Chelsie Bonneau, a senior at Waterford High School in Waterford, Conn., signed up in November to join the Marine Corps when she graduates in June.

Ms. Bonneau has the opportunity to decline her service several months before it is set to begin. But last week she said still plans to go through with it. Though she had few fears about her own military service, she’s anxious about her boyfriend, a Marine, who will likely be leaving the area this month to go overseas. “I’m scared to death that if he goes over there, something might happen,” she said. “It’s always on my mind.”

For Ms. Bonneau, the idea of boot camp scares her more than the possibility that she’ll see military action in Iraq.

Joining the Marines was “something I wanted to do anyway, even if there is a war,” she said. “It’s just a little more personal now.”

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